I’m sure you’ve met her. She’s polite, poised and polished. She talks in correct and considered sentences, but rarely about herself; certainly never about anything intimate. You won’t see her at a loss. You can (barely!) imagine her in tears, but only when no-one’s looking. If she has worries or grief, they are well hidden. Her house is immaculate, her job responsible, her hospitality faultless. She’s strong, capable, and generous.
I’m sure you know him. He’s a powerful preacher. His books are bought and his sermons downloaded all over the globe. Hundreds of thousands read his blog, follow him on Twitter, and like him on Facebook. He’s godly, persuasive, and charming. If he’s evangelical, he’s a powerful preacher; if he’s charismatic, he’s a prophet and miracle-worker.
When I read the story of the Shunnamite woman in 2 Kings 4, it’s people like this that I see.
There she is: a wealthy benefactor. She provides food for God’s prophet Elisha and builds him a room of his own. When he wants to reward her, she refuses. She proclaims her independence: “I dwell among my own people” (2 Kgs 4:13). When he offers the one thing she lacks—a child—she recoils, afraid of disappointment and grief (2 Kings 4:16, 28). Other barren women may plead with God, or give way to bitterness (1 Sam 1, Gen 18:10-15); she stays remote, untouchable, holding her familiar sorrow close. She’s the giver, not the one given to.
There he is: a powerful prophet. He proclaims God’s words. He wields God’s power. At his passing, oil jars fill themselves, poisoned pots become pure, and a few loaves feed one hundred men (2 Kgs 4). When the Shunnamite woman refuses his gift of a son, he grants her one anyway. He’s the giver, and he won’t be denied.
In a crisis, she keeps her head. Things turn out just as she feared: her son dies in her arms. Even then, she doesn’t lose her tight control. She carries her son’s body upstairs, lays it on the prophet’s bed, and asks a servant to fetch her a donkey. When her husband asks what’s wrong, she says, “All is well”. When the prophet’s servant asks what’s wrong, she says, “All is well”. Only when she reaches Elisha does she fall on her face and pour out her bitter grief: “Did I ask my lord for a son? Did I not say, ‘Do not deceive me?” (2 Kgs 4:23, 26, 28).
Driven to her knees, she cries out; no longer a patron, she’s a petitioner.
In a crisis, Elisha knows what to do. He recognises her distress, and moves into action: he sends his staff with his servant, telling him to run and lay it on the boy’s face. Only the woman’s insistence drives Elisha to the boy’s side (2 Kgs 4:30). On the way, the servant returns to tell them that Elisha’s prescription hasn’t worked. The child is still dead.
Driven to his knees, Elisha prays—the only time he’s said to do so in this chapter of miracles.
And God answers. He responds to the mother’s cry and the prophet’s prayer. As Elisha lays himself out on the cold body, God breathes warm life back into the boy, and restores him to his mother. Not Elisha, not the Shunnamite woman, but God, alone, is exalted (Isa 42:8).
Irresistibly, inexorably, God drives us to our knees, but he humbles only to raise up. He won’t let us hide forever behind our careful defences. He tunnels under our walls and breaks down our strong towers. He strips us of our disguises and pursues us down every escape route. He erodes our pride and undermines our self-sufficiency, so that we will, finally, come empty-handed to be filled by him.